By the Book: 5 questions with Author Julia Sonneborn

Julia Sonneborn By the Book stack of books and candle

Many of you might know that I love to read. I learned to read young, by age 4. I was the kid who did every extra credit reading assignment in grammar school and summer reading projects in high school. I'm also in a book club that meets every first Wednesday of the month for the past 15 years. We read mostly fiction, old and new, drink wine, laugh and share our love of books. So when a close friend of mine from high school, Julia Sonneborn decided to write a book, I jumped at the chance to read it!

Author Julia Sonneborn photo


Julia, first I want to say Congratulations on this achievement! I'm so proud of you.  My book club calls you my muse, and they roll their eyes at me when I tell them my English professor friend has a book recommendation. Anyways, fan girling aside, this is really good! Your newest book is a modern retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Not only is it well written, with lots of juicy insight into the usually closed doors of academia, but it's funny! I laughed out loud several times.

1.This book is a departure from your usual academic writing. How did you like writing fiction? Was it easier or harder than your usual academic fare or than you expected?

I've written two academic books, but I've always wanted to write a novel. I have probably two or three unfinished novels on a computer hard drive somewhere. I think writing fiction is really, really hard. It's much more personal than academic writing, and things like plot and pacing were huge challenges for me. I find academic writing much easier, honestly. I don't feel as vulnerable!

2. Being your friend, I recognize people and events in this book. How much of this book is pulled from personal experience, how much is fiction?

Several of the characters were composites of people I know. For example, I did know a professor who had posters of Keanu Reeves on his wall. I did have a college classmate who was a baseball player turned actor. I did know a grad student who proposed to his girlfriend by hiding the ring in a copy of Jane Austen in the library. Even Adam's memory of his classmates filling bowls with syrup and then laughing at him as he's loading the dishwasher--that comes from my friend Maria. That being said, the novel is a work of fiction. None of the people really exist (though I wish Larry did!) 

3. I thought it was really fascinating when Rick, one player in the book's love triangle, gets caught for plagiarizing. His initial defense was that it was self-plagiarism, which I thought was an interesting notion since one typically thinks of plagiarism as stealing another's words and not one's own. I myself have been guilty of that when writing a blog post on a particular topic that I might have covered before and want to flesh out the post a bit with a few sentences from a previous post. I feel a bit lazy for doing so but then again, I'm not getting paid for writing my blog, it's just a labor of love.  Rick's character seemed very James Frey, A Million Little Pieces to me. Was that the inspiration?

I don't think your borrowing material from different posts is a problem at all! The person I was thinking of was a nonfiction writer who did plagiarize himself in that he reused material from pieces he'd published elsewhere. But in his case, he was being paid to produce original material but took shortcuts. He was later found to have fabricated quotes for a book he'd written on Bob Dylan and had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. But he didn't crawl into a hole and die of shame, like I would've done. Instead, he successfully pitched a new book about how love ultimately redeemed him. I actually saw a copy of it in the Albuquerque airport last week. (eyeroll emoji). Rick is also definitely a James Frey type. I find it fascinating that so many people--especially women--suffer from impostor syndrome. Yet the true impostors are completely shameless. And they don't change.

4. Anne does a lot of hand wringing about the love that got away throughout the book, and ultimately feels that her life is missing a vital piece without someone to fill that void, namely Adam.   She is accomplished in her career as a professor and on the tenure track but ultimately it’s not enough for her. We’re raised to think as woman that we can do it all and be it all to our families, ourselves and our careers, but as a working mother this idea rings less and less true for me, personally. Do you feel that it’s even possible to have it all work/career/love/motherhood ?

No, I don't think you can have it all. A friend once told me that there are three things most women want--successful career, happy marriage, and healthy kids--but that most of us can only have two out of the three. When I was in grad school, I looked at the women around me and realized that my friend was right. Most had had to compromise in one of these three things. I think it's likely the same in other hyper-competitive professions. Women can have a great career, but they inevitably must compromise when it comes to their private lives--maybe they sacrifice marriage/partnership, or maybe it's children. Or they choose to have a partner/children and inevitably compromise in terms of career ambitions. Men never have to do that, and that makes me mad!

4. This book is romantic in subject, a genre traditionally written by and for women. How did you happen to choose romance? Was it to elevate a much maligned genre?

JS: The vast majority of romances are written by and for women, yet they're denigrated as low-brow or popular (as opposed to literary). This is changing as bookstores like the Ripped Bodice and writers like Jennifer Weiner are pointing out how gendered and sexist this attitude is. Even back in high school, I remember how we were conditioned to sneer/look down on women's fiction. Postmodern novels by men were implicitly considered "better," more highbrow, etc. And in academia, it's even worse. It's one reason why Mary Bly, who writes  under the pen name Eloisa James, hid her romance-writing career from her colleagues--for fear she'd jeopardize her academic career. 

I adore Jane Austen, and I would argue she is the greatest prose stylist EVER. And all her novels had a romance plotline. And they were brilliant. And hilarious! My book is really an homage to her.

vase with crespaedia flowers and book stacks on a shelf

Love to read? Enter for a chance to win Julia's new book By the Book on my Instagram here

Do you read romance? Which is your favorite Jane Austen? Any favorite must-reads? Tell me below in the comments!

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